Monday, October 31, 2011

Reality Fiction

Thrilling Wonder Stories is the modest title of an annual event (now it its third year), this year hosted by Liam Young (Tomorrow's Thoughts Today) and Matt Jones (BERG London) at the Architectural Association in London. I attended the event on Friday and left brimming with new ideas, full of a renewed sense of idealism about what is possible in film, art and storytelling.

The future may not be what it used to be but, maybe, just maybe, great cities of yore – London and New York – still have a special part to play in a 21st century society defined by a globally networked capitalism that is dissolving physical space and making location increasingly irrelevant. There may be no maps for these territories but, as we strive to find our way through this shadowy new topography – a transparent 3D chess board extending to infinity – the intersection where storytelling and technology meet is likely to provide an invaluable light in the dark. The story, which has shaped understanding for thousands of years and is arguably the ultimate human technology, still has the power to remake the world, offering opportunities for transformation, renewal and a sense of genuine, Vaclav Havel inspired, hope.

Part One – Worlds of Wonder: Far From Home

The first speaker in this celebration of storytelling and technology was Christian Lorenz Scheurer, a Swiss concept artist who has lent his talents to everything from Hollywood movies, animations, comics, paintings, video games and theme parks, as well as some very elaborate, very secret building projects in Beijing, Moscow and Dubai. He described his creative process as an attempt to investigate The Anthropology of the Imaginary – asking questions about the sorts of people who live in the world he is trying to imagine and using that information as his guide. He said that he liked working on movies and video games in particular because they allow him to be like Gustav Klimt, designing architecture, creatures and fashion.

Having recounted his early years in Hollywood, calling up major studios and asking to speak to Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg, he talked about his work on a succession of successful failures and failed successes, including Fifth Element, Titanic, What Dreams May Come, Dark City, The Matrix and The Day After Tomorrow. Then he got bored with Hollywood, he told us, and went to work in Japan on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which was a five year project and a massive commercial flop, but also a Petri-dish for other's successes – without that project, no Gollum, no Avatar, he said.

In Hollywood, of course, the right image (and all of his art was absolutely beautiful) is worth a lot of money, not to discredit George Lucas in any way, Lorenz Scheurer told us, but it was probably the dozen or so Ralph McQuarrie sketches and paintings that got Star Wars its green light, as opposed to Lucas' 20 scribbled pages of story outline. He also described working on a painting of the Sentinel robots for The Animatrix, which the Wachowskis described as looking like a ball with 'eels of made out of quicksilver' moving around it, burrowing into the earth – a thrilling reminder of just how powerful words can be in the right hands.

Then the conversation was joined by a representative from SPOV, an agency that works on CGI animation sequences for TV programmes, games and movies; and Gavin Rothery, who worked as concept artist on Moon, directed by Duncan Jones. Rothery gave some interesting insights into the processes involved in working with old fashioned models which, in combination with a bit of CGI magic, can still be transformed from a children's toy pulled by a piece of string into a credible lunar rover on the surface of the moon. There is a good reason why film's like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the original Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner still stand up to this day.

This led onto a conversation about the difference between good science fiction and bad science fiction. Good science fiction is almost invariably the kind that creates some rules and then sticks to them; it is when those rules are broken that an audience looses its ability to suspend disbelief – an ethos that is as true of the narrative as it is of the design. In the original Star Wars films, Liam Young reminded us, none of the vehicles have wheels, whereas on the prequels there are wheels and, as a result it doesn't look like Star Wars. It is that extra three or four percent attention to detail that makes all the difference when you are asking an audience to invest their emotions in something fantastic.

All three contributors agreed that one of the best things that any designer or storyteller can do when they have the freedom to create almost anything is to put some limits on it. This principle was well illustrated (ha!) in another set of pictures Lorenz Scheurer showed us from his first film project, an unmade Belgian science fiction movie called Rax wherein the director set three criterion for his fantasy world; no nuts, no bolts, everything has to be steam powered and everything has to be made out of ceramics.

In storytelling in general, but in science fiction in particular, so much inspiration comes from playing the childlike game of, 'What if?' What if Gaudi was not run over by a tram but had carried on building the Barcelona he envisioned in his head? Might it have looked something like this?

A welcome reminder of the vast amount of honest effort and endeavour that goes into creating movies, regardless of the final outcome – something that is well worth keeping in mind when assessing the final product. You can rest assured, almost every detail you notice and many that you don’t has been thought about and sweated over by talented artists and technicians whose sincere intention is to make something that enables people to suspend their disbelief and become emotionally involved in the reality of the fiction.

Behind the Scenes – Blood, Guts and Hydraulic Fluid

Andy Lockley, visual effects artist at Double Negative (he was keen to stress the difference between special effects and VFX, which are frequently confused, he said), who has worked on such films as Captain America, The Dark Knight, Inception (for which he won an Oscar) and upcoming The Dark Knight Rises, was the first person to speak on the second panel and for copyright reasons all of the live feeds were turned off and recording of any kind prohibited. ‘Don’t even remember’ he said. For that reason I am not sure how much I am allowed to say about his contribution, but, I think I am on safe ground saying that he spoke about the different approaches taken by some of the different directors he has worked with and was particularly enlightening about his working relationship with Christopher Nolan on Inception and the Batman films. Apparently, Christopher Nolan's approach to special effects and the fantastic is always tempered by what he calls, 'our disappointing reality'. Every explosion, every effect, every car chase in a Christopher Nolan film has to have that slight sense of 'disappointment' because that is his experience of reality, a useful safety lever that prevents his films from veering too far into the realm of the impossible, one suspects. Lockley's advice to aspiring artists, designers and creators was 'don't think you know better than reality, always copy things, always have reference and make things dirty'.

The next person to speak was Gustav Hoegen, an electronics engineer specialising in animatronics work on films, who has lent his expertise to such diverse projects as Clash of the Titans (2010), The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) and, perhaps most intriguingly, the new Alien prequel Prometheus. He demonstrated how he turns biomechanics into mechanics, imitating life through engineering and, while conceding that he is never going to be able to compete with computer special effects – 'I am quite intimidated by it to be honest', he said – he did a great job of explaining how his practical effects differ; being present on the set, improvising, thinking on your feat, no time to plan, ‘hand shaking as you try to wire something in’ – animatronics is very much an old-fashioned discipline.

But not quite as old-fashioned as what followed.


Not the Victorian kind with specialist chemicals, preserving agents and delicate dis-and-re-assembly, no, a live, do-it-yourself taxidermy demonstration by a wonderfully bonkers woman called Charlie Tuesday Gates, who told us that she found most of her specimens by the side of the road and has nothing but scorn for vegetarians (being a vegan herself). She proceeded to skin a dead rabbit – a lot like ‘peeling an orange’, apparently – a sight I definitely did not expect to see when I woke up that day. While she did so she regaled us with the kind of barmy anecdotes one might expect from a woman brassy enough to start doing taxidermy as a hobby and then end up making a career out of it – a welcome intrusion of ever-so-quirky in-your-face humanity.

Following that madness, Vincenzo Natali’s disembodied head joined us, speaking live via Skype from his home in Toronto. He spoke about his predilection towards science fiction, the life-changing experience of watching Star Wars aged eight and his ambitious plans for new movies based of JG Ballard's High-Rise and William Gibson's Neuromancer. He expressed his view that Ballard's books were more akin to surrealist paintings than traditional novels and also dropped some fascinating insights about his approach to adapting Neuromancer. He said, in its simplest form, he sees it as a heist movie which gets a bit more complicated in the final third, and, given that Neuromancer is 'almost not science fiction anymore', he plans to shoot most of the movie on location, adding a few augmentations in post production. The real challenge of course will be realising cyberspace, but, unsurprisingly, he wasn’t giving anything away with respect to that.

Part Three – Strange But True: When Robots Rule the World

This third panel started with a swarm robotics demonstration in which two dozen or so small, cylindrical bots with sensors on the outside and embedded micro-controllers and motors on the inside gradually manoeuvred themselves into a pattern as determined by a light source. It was a modest demonstration of a very powerful programming methodology to do with designing redundant systems (not all of the robots can succeed), which prioritises the aims of the many over those of the one.

Dr Roderich Gross from the Head of the Natural Robotics Lab at the University of Sheffield continued the robot theme with his presentation about some of the more sophisticated swarm robotic systems currently under development in the laboratory; before Philip Beesley, an experimental architect, joined the conversation to give a very detailed, intellectually engaging talk that I am sure will have thrilled and enthused any architects present. I enjoyed it but cannot pretend to have understood it in its entirety. The concepts he was describing and even his way of talking about them was very much a new world for me. What he seemed to be proposing was a more interactive and socially engaged design methodology, which might act as a counterpoint to the essentially alienating approaches promoted by thoughts about Euclidean geometry and Platonic solids. Fascinating stuff somewhere between architecture and installation art, including references to material properties and structural mechanics, alongside allusions to 17th century paintings, theology and philosophy. A very pure design aesthetic and ethical framework intended (I assume) to provoke thoughts about how sensors and interactive elements might be incorporated into the built environment by looking at the problem from an alternative perspective, outside the typical run of the mill.

This talk ended on a fascinating note, with the contributors being questioned about the ethics of their research, Beesley expressing his concern about the very fine line between an interactive architectural element imbued with threat and one that is soothing and encourages calm.

The Heart of the Matter

The last panel was comprised of Julian Bleecker, who wanted to tell us why just because something is not sold in Walmart, it does not mean it is not real; Kevin Slavin, who spoke about how algorithms are taking over Wall Street, motivating people to level mountains and terraform the Earth itself in order to install faster fibre-optic lines; and Bruce Sterling, who disarmed everyone by telling us that the only things that really provoke wonder are things in nature such as the size of the universe and the age of the earth, before exhilarating everyone with a story about the most thrilling and wondrous sausage he could imagine – specifically, a radioactive Chernobyl Przewalski horse sausage shot by a bunch of bored Ukrainian teenagers, rendered by a DIY butcher and eaten by one Steve Jobs on a business trip to Moscow – a Gothic High-Tech story that chimes with the fevered times in which we are living.

That was the precis for the epic conversation that followed. Unfortunately, I had to leave early and did not catch it in its entirety, but what follows are some of the provocations I might have contributed if I had the balls and the microphone.

Despite its success, and it was a big success, at the centre of the event was a contradiction that was never directly addressed in a wholly satisfactory manner. Namely, the perennial struggle between art and commerce. Maybe the problem is intractable but it is impossible to ignore the fact that it is Hollywood and big business that fund fantastic concept artists to create visions of other worlds; it the military-industrial complex that empowers scientists to undertake swarm robotics and advanced artificial intelligence research; and it is the voracious demands of the market that are incentivising physicists and mathematicians in New York and London to develop ever more advanced derivative trading products and algorithms which, once they are unleashed, nobody understands.

So, on the one hand, it is global capital that makes these thrilling wonder stories possible, but, might the efforts of the very brilliant people who create the art, engineer the robots and programme the algorithms be better directed? In spite of the massive amount of money, effort and man-hours that go into designing and developing Hollywood films, the finished product is rarely as evocative as the concepts that precede it – as Lorenz Scheurer conceded, Hollywood producers invariably demand that whatever fantastic science fictional city he has created become New York. As mentioned by Liam Young, the most advanced robots in the world are invariably produced for the military, which uses them to destroy – we know that drone attacks are already alarmingly commonplace in Pakistan. And, as Kevin Slavin told us in his talk, the algorithms, which are already responsible for 70 percent of trades in the US, are already making their way into executive roles, abstracting information and replacing human agency, producing 'information without an author'.

There was a brief refutation of the idea that a concept only becomes real when it can be productised or marketed. Julian Bleecker proposed that concepts themselves, as realised in paintings, films, animations or good ol' fashioned words on a page, are real because they fires our imagination and make us think about what could be – a thrilling defence of authors and artists that needs to be made even more vigorously, I think. He said that every time we apologise for presenting something that is not 'real', we are submitting to a capitalist ideology that is just plain wrong. In order to illustrate his point, Bleecker, who wrote his PhD (signed by former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, no less) about the social and cultural power of the 'special effect', told us a story. It was a true story about how Samsung's lawyers used the poster for the film 2001: A space Odyssey, which depicts an astronaut standing on the surface of the moon holding what appears to be a wireless touch screen information device, to defend a copyright lawsuit brought by Apple. The lawyers argued, with a straight face, that the idea for the product was in existence prior to Apple's patent and therefore, Samsung had not breached intellectual property law; in effect, Apple had stolen the idea from Stanley Kubrick and his collaborators in the first place! This is ironic for a number of reasons but most especially because the same corporations that prompt us to think of artistic and design endeavour as 'not real' in the first place are the first to assert just how real these things are when it suits their interests. My question therefore is, what is the alternative? How do we create a society in which art is valued as much as product? Does the change have to come from individuals asserting their own standards or does there need to be some sort of institutional change? Is such a change possible and, looked at from a broader perspective, is it necessarily preferable?

The second questioner wanted to know the panellists thoughts about how one might express the very complicated ideas under discussion to a child. He drew upon Kevin Slavin's previous comments – if chess is an analogy for war and Monopoly a crude metaphor for capitalism, Code War (a 1984 computer game in which the players duel with algorithms) is not metaphor or analogy at all; it is real, being played out on the world's stockmarkets and elsewhere – saying that, despite their sophistication, he could still teach chess and Monopoly to an eight year old, but, he could not do the same with Code War. What tools might one use to introduce a child to the ever-changing world in which we live? Slavin said that computer games are a pretty good start, drawing our attention to their sophistication by making the comparison that all he had to play with when he was a kid were six dice and 52 cards. The question, I didn't get the chance to ask is, what games? There were a lot of people keen to give their props to computer games throughout the event and, much as I can understand why, if we are honest, computer games are not nearly as good as they ought to be. In fact, computer games are a good example of an industry that has been coarsened by an industrial-marketing machine that requires a certain type of game. In the early years of home computing, games were quirky and idiosyncratic – Lucasarts adventure games, Microprose strategy games, Codemasters sports games – designed to appeal to a small number of discerning consumers. Now that computer games are big business they have been homogenised beyond all recognition, boxed off into just a few categories. World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Halo, and a few other Blockbuster titles dominate the market. 60 percent of games produced are first-person shooters of one kind or another. Where are the rich new worlds of creative possibility we are all being promised? When you think that there are more possible moves in a single game of chess than there are grains on the entire planet – there is some thrilling wonder for you! – Call of Duty, in spite of all of its aesthetic sophistication, starts to look a little bit weak, a bit tame. The graphics (which are beautifully rendered by very skilful people I'm sure) have improved exponentially, but the actual game mechanics have not advanced far beyond Space Invaders – pointing a target at a screen in order to shoot and kill things. I agree that computer games have enormous potential, maybe even more than modern day movies, but they are not there yet.

Unfortunately, it was at this point that I had to leave – I very much wanted to hear from the sound effects and music panel that was going to follow. I would also have very much liked to have asked the panel, if cynicism is the wrong response because it leads to inaction (and I would agree with that 100 percent by the way), what is the right response? What do we need to do to motivate ourselves and others to take effective action? Because surely the status quo, moulded by powerful interests beyond our control – supernational corporations, unaccountable media moguls, oligarchs and even algorithms which 'decide' what information we see and what information we don't – has to change. The Occupy protesters might be incoherent and hypocritical, but their demonstrations stem from legitimate concerns and frustrations about perceived inequalities and cronyism. Where are our jobs going to come from? Where are the opportunities for those with talent to rise to the top, based on ability as opposed to money or class? The forces of global capitalism seem to be fighting against us, and bankers, politicians and journalists at the top of society do not seem to be being held to account.

In brief, the event left me buzzing with ideas, questions left unanswered. In a world in which creators and innovators have seemingly been pushed to the margins in favour of a market friendly corporate blandness, it was great to see something that wanted to celebrate the imagination, the power of dreams and the magic of storytelling. The next part is probably my - Reality Fiction - Keyword description

Monday, October 24, 2011

Make Believe

I don't think I have gone into a Blockbuster movie with as much good will towards the characters or the fictionanal universe being portrayed since I went to see J J Abrams' Star Trek reeboot in 2009, nostalgia stemming from a clear childhood recollection of the reruns of the 1960s TV series that used to be broadcast on BBC2 on a Friday night. My affection for Tintin, on the other hand, is derived from a more hazy childhood memory of the cartoon series that used to be broadcast on Channel Four, very early on Saturday mornings. In my, possibly inaccurate rememberences, the 1990s cartoon series about the bequiffed Belgian boy reporter and his dog called Snowy was a perfect mix of styles and tones, with just enough adventure to keep things exciting, just enough humour to keep things light, just enough mystery to draw you further into the narrative and just enough threat to keep the action exciting. It was perfectly pictched.

In my particular case, however, I probably have more of an affinity for the earlier films of Steven Spielberg. Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade was the first film I ever fell head over heels in love with, prompting my five year old self to hang off of the end of our sofa as if I were Indy, about to be thrown from the grill of a rapidly swerving truck. Films produced by Steven Spielberg, such as the Back to the Future series and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, also played an important part in forming my boyhood imagination. These films, which I still love, share the tone of playful seriousness I remember from the Tintin cartoon serial - 'we are not taking ourselves so seriously that we cannot laugh at our ourselves and our peculiar predicament, but, ultimately, the quest upon which we have embarked is important and the outcome matters, good should triumph over evil'.

So it was with hope that I noted Spielberg would helm a new Tintin project. But with some trepidation also. Isn't Tintin a bit of a retrograde step for a director who has made important films about heavyweight subject matter such as World War Two and the Holocaust? Shouldn't an artist of his stature and talent be working on films that are less to do with escapism and more to do with overcoming the inequities of a cruel and lonely universe?

Moreover, I was worried about whether or not a major Hollywood studio, or Spielberg himself, for that matter, would have sensitivity enough to faithfully recreate the old fashioned, romping, and distinctly Euopean sensibility of the orginal source material, on the silver screen. The early trailers were not particularly promising, I thought. But then I saw this and decided I would be going to watch the film on its opening day:

I need not have worried. Spielberg won over my inner cynic in moments and, I am happy to report, his first foray into animation is an undiluted pleasure. From opening titles to closing credits, I was captivated by The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, a sugary, caffeinated concotion, with sweet-waffles on the side, which leaves you hungry for more.

Few directors understand how to manipulate cinematic space as well as Steven Spielberg. The film is a masterclass in action movie directing and how to tell a story with a camera. Spielberg's use of 3D is excellent, his natural tendency to make use of both foreground and background suiting the medium perfectly. Almost every shot has multiple threads running through it, whether it is a visual gag, an easter egg or an important story point.

Furthemore, the freedom enabled by the digital animation and motion capture process means Spielberg's camera has never been more mobile. Panning around foggy Parisian streets, taking in perfect Lawrence of Arabia-inspired vistas, and rushing around bustling Morrocan souqs and market stalls, showing us sights we could never experience in any other way. No one else directs action with the same sense of kinetic energy without disrupting the viewer's sense of geography or geometry. It is a joy to behold Spielberg indulging in such unashamed showmanship, streching his legs, running out of breath, tripping over himself, as he rushes headlong at the boundary of his own talent. There is more visual ingenuity in Tintin than many a jobbing director manages in their entire career.

For a long stretch in the middle of the film I was thrilled by the spectacle, gripped by the peril and laughing at the slapstick, all at the same time. Tintin is inquisitive and full of daring-do, but by no means is he a conventional hero - how many American action films will you watch this year in which the hero announces with gusto, 'I know exactly the place I can find out!' before the film cuts to a scene in a library? Haddock is a gutsy trier who keeps getting it wrong and is full of pathos - surprisingly the film never shys away from the fact that he is a drunkard. Daniel Craig clearly relishes the chance to play a baddie, replete with villainous falcon sidekick. And Pegg and Frost are great fun as the identical English nincompoops, Thompson and Thompson, who, when they are not bickering like a pair of Star Wars robots, are falling over, but still managing to come out on top.

I am curious to know what my fellow Europeans will make of the film, and more especially what any Belgians will make of the film. There is a very strong British contingent, both in the film's cast - Jamie Bell as Tintin, Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock, Daniel Craig as Saccharine, Toby Jones as Aristides Silk, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the Thompson Twins - and behind the scenes - the film was co-written by Steven Moffat (Dr Who), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block). Has the character and the style of the story been overly Angelcised? It is very hard for me to judge.

The one criticism I have is that John Williams does not give us a recognisable theme to walk out whistling. But that is a minor gripe. For pure spectable and popcorn-munching entertainment - the kind that only Hollywood makes - Tintin beats all comers. Bring on the next one! - Make Believe - Keyword description

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Critic Proof

Holy Flying Circus is a confused and confusing programme. Parts of it are good, but other parts are embarrassingly bad. Judged as a comedy, it is not really funny enough, and, judged as a drama, it is not serious enough, skirting around issues it propounds to address. Ostensibly a film about the controversy that surrounded the release of the Monty Python film Life of Brian in the UK in 1979, detailing the Python's battles against religious groups such as Mary Whitehouse and The Festival of Light, and culminating in a television debate between John Cleese and Michael Palin on one side, and the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge on the other, the programme struggles to find the right tone.

One of the best jokes is when the television producer putting the debate together imagines the Pythons, dressed as devils, facing off against a couple of Christian bishops, asking, 'What have the Christians ever done for us?', to which the reply comes, 'A moral code, sympathy for others and a way of thinking about the world that counterbalances some of the evils of capitalism'. The Pythons reply, 'Of course, a strong moral code and sympathy for others. But, apart from that, what have the Christians ever done for us?' That is a good set-up, and all Python fans know what is coming next - except, it doesn't. The sketch peters out at this point, one of the bishops pathetically suggesting, 'Hot cross buns?' It is that odd mixture of bold ideas and lukewarm execution that is probably the most frustrating thing about the film.

Moreover, the actors all portray persona rather than characters, making empathy almost impossible and robbing the film of the pathos it seems to aim for at its finale. These are not people, but comedic cyphers, so, why should I care? Michael Palin is the Nicest Man in the World and John Cleese is the Most Angry and Obstreperous Man in the World - both have their moments - Eric Idle is obsessed with money, Graham Chapman is a gay who smokes a pipe, Terry Jones is a speech impediment and Terry Gilliam is a haircut. There are moments when the film, playfully and cleverly transcends the diminished world it portrays, using cheapo, drama school ‘special effects’ – when Cleese and Palin transmogrify into Thuderbirds/Team America style puppets in order to fight, propelled through the air by actors wearing black leotards – but such moments are fleeting.

Another nice touch is when a newspaper seller chastises John Cleese for his hypocrisy, saying that Life of Brian would have never been made about the Muslim prophet Mohammed, to which the anachronistic response is, ‘This is 1979! Britain is a country with a Judeo-Christian heritage and culture and Life of Brian stands as an allegory for the stupidities of all organised religion. If say in 32 years time,’ he continues, ‘there are two million Muslims living in Britain, representing four percent of the population (‘ACTUAL STATISTICS’, the film flags up helpfully), the situation might be different, but it isn't, okay?’ Too often though, the filmmakers confuse controversy for crudity. One sketch about the 'BBC Head of Rude Words' is seemingly there as an excuse to wrench in as many swears as possible. 'This is a list of the words the sample group found most offensive,' begins an uptight grey man, speaking in a cut-glass English accent, 'C***', 'Mother******', and so on and so forth. Given the lack of censorship of these words on television today, a scene satirising the stupidity of the upper-class twits who want to censor them seems oddly redundant. The scene might have been funnier if, instead of simply reciting the usual suspects as if they were actually shocking - which they are not because, as the film is so keen to remind us, time and time again, this is 2011 and not 1979 - the actors had read out a less obvious list of ‘rude words’.

The biggest problem with the piece, in fact, is that, for all of its supposed satire, it is really quite conventional. Viewing Life of Brian today, it is hard to see what all the fuss was about, it is just a very funny film, not to mention the fact that it is widely adorned by the establishment - the BBC and BAFTA, as well as Mums and Dads up and down the country - all the sorts of people who were once so ‘offended’ by it and the last people you want on your side if you are aiming to be subversive. Indeed, Holy Flying Circus, is oddly conservative in places, the film's moment of catharsis coming when Michael Palin (the most sympathetic and rounded character in the piece) wins his mother's approval - 'I do understand why you made it son,' says the same actor playing Palin, dressed in drag. Palin, who has been having weird anxiety dreams - 'better lay off the cheese' - can rest easy in his bed once again, safe in the knowledge that everything is okay with the world because his Mummy does understand him.

The film is also too reverential of the Python's themselves. The actor portraying John Cleese explains to camera that his portrayal of Cleese as a self-important and obnoxious contrarian who squabbles with the rest of the troupe simply because he can, is not intended to denigrate Cleese in any way; he is simply playing a comedy version of Cleese’s Basil Faulty persona and he is sure the real Cleese is a very nice man indeed. Yes, I understand that, I thought, I understand perfectly well that what I am watching is drama, not documentary. This is like the Penguin guide to post-modern irony and precisely the kind of concession the Pythons never made themselves; theirs was an unapologetically intellectual brand of humour – and, if you didn’t know who John Kant, Martin Heidegger or Arthur Schopenhauer were, sometimes, you weren't going to get the joke.

However, no self-referential, post-modern comedy-drama would be complete without national treasure Stephen Fry as a smug, all-seeing, all-knowing God, who makes allusions to everything from contemporary BBC cuts to Frankie Boyle jokes about Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington. The levels of irony are layed on so thick the film sometimes seems to be attempting to make itself critic proof – as Fry remarks, consolingly, at the film’s conclusion, 'This will probably form the end of some heavy-handed BBC Four drama.' - Critic Proof - Keyword description

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

More Thoughts on British Cinema

Prompted by this article on British film in The Guardian, which asserts that its 'Golden Age' is now.

What is a British film?

Is a British film one with a British theme, setting or subject matter? Is a British film one that is made by a largely British cast and crew? (In which case something like Alien would qualify). Is a British film one that passes the UK Film Council's Cultural Test, thereby qualifying it for tax rebates? Or is a British film something more nebulous, a feeling or an aesthetic more than a category? Maybe none of the above.

As for the British film industry, and its supposed renaissance, that is something else entirely. British films nowadays tend to be one offs that, generally speaking, do not make money. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, the Ian Drury biopic starring Andy Serkis, cost about £2 million but took only around £500,000 at the British box office; and The Scouting Book for Boys (stark but good), a little gem, which cost about the same, made only around £40,000 at the British box office. Stats via the BFI website. Do these films make their money back on DVD or through television licensing? I would be interested to know. Because if the films are not making a profit, they can hardly be expected to support an industry.

Britain has a film industry in the sense that a lot of American films are made here and we have some of the best behind the camera talent in the world working here. But a British film renaissance? First we need to make films that find an audience and make money. I don't know what the magic formula is - Film Four couldn't make it work - but if the profits are not coming back to Britain to be re-invested in British film then we can hardly claim to have an industry.

To that end, some of the examples given in the article are questionable. Harry Potter is about as British as James Bond (Irony! Both being owned by American studios), The King's Speech was a UK/Australian/French co-production with a token amount of money coming from the UK Film Council. And Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was a British story financed by a French distributor in the form of Studio Canal.

Where are the British distributors (like Studio Canal) which profit from and support national and regional productions? In the past there was Ealing, Hammer and The Carry On films, which were an industry unto themselves. What are their modern day equivalents? I would be interested to know.

This post is part of the British Picture series, in which I am trying to figure out what constitutes a British film.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Quiet One

Martin Scorsese's documentary about the life of George Harrison is a three and a half hour marathon, but the film making is so exquisite and feelings of goodwill and love for Harrison expressed by the contributors so profound, it never feels any more taxing than a leisurely evening stroll. Watching most of a film is an unsatisfying experience at the best of times, but there is something really grating about watching most of a very good film. Unfortunately, in this case, time was against me.

This is a sumptuous film though. I watched it with a smile on my face almost throughout. But it is clearly made to appeal to people of a certain age, who enjoy sitting down in their favourite armchair with a nice chocky bicky and reminiscing about how 'wild' they used to be. One sequence in which an old friend remembers the first time George and John gave her and her husband lysergic acid and they watched the sunrise - 'Sitting in an Engligh garden waiting for the sun,' she says - is almost satirical in its Middle Class pretentiousness, the woman describing the trip as if it were a nice country picnic.

Living in the Material World is an idealised and sentimentalised version of the George Harrison story. All of the talking heads are captured by Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Richardson's loving camera, older faces bathed in the warm, forgiving light of magic hour - even the faintly alarming Phil Spector looks presentable, a clear testament to Richardson's talents as a cinematographer.

Certainly, Harrison had no shortage of celebrity friends and admirers, many of which appear in the film - Paul McCartney (who comes across particularly well) and Ringo Starr are both prevelent, as are Harrison's window, Olivia Harrison, his son, Dhani, and his ex-wife, Pattie Boyd. Eric Clapton is good humoured but reflective, Tom Petty, Yoko Ono, Eric Idle, Ravi Shankar, a giggling Terry Gilliam and a surprisingly insightful Phil Spector also feature. Indeed, Harrison had so many celebrity friends, some are notably by their absense, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne, in particular.

Some of the best moments, however, come from the non-celebs. His two older brother's recollections about their childhood growing up together in a two-up, two-down in Liverpool and their opinions of one of the band's first performances at a family wedding (prior to Hamburg) - John Lennon poured a pint over one of George's older female relatives when she started playing pub songs on the old Joanna between sets - have a down-at-heel authenticity that the rest of the film does not and could not have. Harrison prided himself on being a down to earth kind of guy, so it seems - one of his favourite pass times was gardening - and Ringo, Clapo and Macca are no preening, self-important starlets, that's for sure, but, now I think on't, I could have done with more from the brothers and their ilk. We hear Harrison's wonderfully deadpan letter's home during the crazy days of the Beatles - 'We were late leaving, so when we got around to the other side of the building the cars were completely smashed in, the roofs pressed against the seats. 20 girls had to go to hospital. Eventually we made our getaway in an ambulance' - but what did his family think of his success? How did their relationships change when Harrison became part of the biggest rock n' roll group of all time?

Thankfully, not everything makes for comfortable Sunday evening viewing. The film of his life closely tracks the trajectory of his career - the fun, frenzy, chaos, creativity, frustration and finally disappointment of the Beatles, followed by one great solo album and a so-so output after that, with a lot of Indian mysticism in between. The rawkus days and nights in Hamburg at the Reeperbahn, playing massively energetic rock n' roll, hanging out with Astrid and Klaus and having his 17 year old eyes opened to a wider world outside Liverpool. There is also some fantastic early concert footage with decent audio - I had always assumed these performances had been lost to the sound of thousands of screaming teenage girls - and the band sound great! Tight, punchy, brilliant singing. This part of the film, about the mad merry-go-round on tour is a real treat, capturing both the excitment and the trauma of being idolised in such an extreme degree.

Things slow down and get much quieter as we are taken into the studio. Sir George Martin does his usual respectable, classically trained bit about how Decca was a comedy lable and even he didn't think much of what The Beatles were doing when he first heard them. But, he tells us, he warmed to Harrison right away because when he invited them into the recording booth to listen back to what they had been doing so that they could tell him if there was anything they didn't like, he was the first to quip, 'I don't like your tie for a start'.

Most of the major incidents in Harrison's life are discussed as they might be between old friends, skipping over narrative details and getting right to the meat. This is fine for an audience that is already familiar with the story, which, for the most part, I suppose they will be, but it may leave some other people confused. Those who did not know that Eric Clapton broke up Harrison's first marriage by wooing Harrison's then wife may find that particular thread hard to follow. Plus Harrison's drug habits and infidelities are only hinted at. His second wife, Olivia, tells us that it was sometimes difficult living with a man who found it so very easy to bring women under his spell and we are left to fill in the blanks. In other words, short shrift is given to the personality flaws (we all have them), which might have painted a truer portrait of the man, had Scorsese's intention been different.

There are hints that Harrison had a strong sense of humour (Eric Idle describes his decision to fund Monty Python's Life of Brian because 'he wanted to see it' as 'the most expensive cinema ticket in history') and joyous (as opposed to Lennon's caustic) wit, there are hints of the betrayal he must have felt when one of his best friends (Eric Clapton) stole his wife, and there are hints about the hole he was trying to fill with religion. Small cracks are allowed to emerge, and those are golden, but, ultimately, the mask remains unbroken. When I went into the film, I knew that George Harrison was the quiet one who got religion and Indian spirituality and stayed mates with the other three. This film did little to undermine or subvert those pre-conceived ideas.

What makes the film worth watching, however, are those little moments, the glimpses behind the mask. 1) Macca wins a thousand credibility points for his reminisences of the boy he went to school with who had a fantastic haircut - longish hair fashioned into a spectualar quiff - which one of his friends described as looking like a "fookin' turban". Harrison's hair was immaculate. 2) Phil Spector's shrewd commercial sensibility picking My Sweet Lord as the first single off of All Thing's Must Pass - Harrison was worried that it was too overtly religious, he wasn't sure he wanted to make that kind of a statement - Spector reassured him, 'It doen't matter. That is a hit record'. 3) Eric Clapton's laughter in response to the recital of an incident when George left the band during the recording of the White Album and Lennon said, 'Why don't we get in Eric?' 4) And Harrison's dawning realisation that he wanted to write songs as well as play them, 'I figured, if John and Paul can do it then anyone can.'

I don't think I am being unfair when I say that George Harrison is not as interesting a character as Bob Dylan (the subject of another epic Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home), or even John Lennon or Paul McCartney. Still, I can hardly recommend this film highly enough. I was entranced. An affectionate portrait of an artist finding his own way, asserting his force of personality in the midst of the massive pressure cooker that was The Beatles. As McCartney correctly states, whenever he hears people talk about the Beatles without George or without Ringo, he always puts them right - 'The Beatles was a square, not a triangle or any other shape. Remove one of those corners - John, George, Ringo or me - and the whole thing falls apart.'

Check out your local art house cinema to see if it is playing near you and if not, look out for it on BBC Four or BBC Two some time in November. I will certainly be watching it again, and not just to catch the - The Quiet One - Keyword description

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What's in a Name?

Movie titles are important as they are generally among the first things an audience knows about a film that gives some kind of clue about what to expect at the cinema. What a film is called can have a profound impact on audience expectations and when those expectations are not met it frequently leads to disappointment, as we are witnessing at the moment with the particularly daft case of the woman in America who has brought a lawsuit against the makers of the new Ryan Gosling movie, Drive, because it does not contain enough driving.

The meaning of a movie's title is also quite often lost in translation. The first James Bond movie Dr No was reportedly released in China under the slightly confusing moniker of We Don't Need a Doctor, John Travolta's high school musical Grease was released in Argentina under the title Vaseline and in Germany the Zucker Brother's farce Airplane! was sold to audiences as The Unbelievable Trip on a Wacky Airplane, which is surely conclusive proof that the Germans do have a sense of humour after all!

So, having established that titles are important and that a different title can radically alter people's expectations, we come to the case of Martin Scorsese's latest, family film The Invention of Hugo Cabaret, or should that be Hugo Cabaret, or maybe just plain Hugo.

When I heard that Martin Scorsese was making a kids film I was intrigued. Watching someone with that kind of creativity, artistry and vision turn their talents to something new is always interesting. Even though he has been simmering somewhere below his experimental boiling point for some time now, who knows, maybe a nice new model railway is exactly what little Marty needs to get his imagination firing on all cylinders once again.

The film's premise, again, sounds promising. Based on a novel about an orphan boy living in the walls of Gare du Nord station in 1930s Paris, the boy meets one time filmmaker and magician George Melies, the director of such silent film classics as A Trip to the Moon and Conquest of the Pole, who is in possession of a wind-up boy. Scorsese is a well known cineaste and the perfect man to expound the pleasures and delights of the films of one of the early pioneers of fantasy film making. Add to that what sounds like the most surreal set-up he has had to work with since After Hours, which is a very good thing indeed, and this is staring to sound pretty exciting. What fun might Scorsese have playing in the same sandbox as Caro and Jeunet – Delicatessen crossed with Taxi Driver, but for kids (is that possible? You get the idea), who wouldn't want that?

However, when the trailer was released, what we got was not The Invention of Hugo Cabaret, it was not even the less quirky but still slightly strange Hugo Cabaret, no, somewhere in the midst of the production and marketing maelstrom the film had undergone a personality transplant. The Invention of Hugo Cabaret, an offbeat, febrile fantasy, had metamorphosed into a heart-warming comedy-adventure for children of all ages called Hugo, in 3D.

Hugo, unlike The Invention of Hugo Cabaret, is a title that does not inspire or imply anything, it is asinine, dull, timid, and nondescript. It is a blank slate onto which an audience can ascribe whatever attributes they desire. Or none at all. Hugo is hiding a personality very well or hasn't even got one, whereas Hugo Cabaret is clearly an oddball. That is why the name was changed, I am quite sure, and that betrays a dogmatic, slavishly establishment view of what audiences want (nothing with any sort of character!), which I find very disappointing.

The trailer itself is little better. Beautiful crane shots and Steadicam work guide us through a majestic 1930s train station that will look lovely in 3D, but the main action seems to consist of Sacha Baron Cohen falling over, avec the usual trailer cliché of 'inspiring' verbs and adjectives. The same barf-inducing quality is shared with the film's poster, which depicts a large key, sprinkled with fairy dust, inviting audiences to 'open a doorway onto a world' or 'step inside a magical kingdom', or whatever. Because, ultimately, the campaign tells us, Hugo is a window onto whatever wonderful world/forgotten childhood you want it to be.

We will find out what the film is like in - What's in a Name? - Keyword description

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Trailer Trash

Maybe it is my age, my political leanings or the fact that I have seen too many films and have an internal cliché siren, or, maybe, just maybe, Hollywood movies really are getting worse. Regardless of the reason, the sad fact of the matter is, I find it almost impossible to suspend disbelief in Hollywood superhero movies any more. The special effects, the costumes, the big name actors, all of these things, even the presence of a writer/director with massive geek credentials, are simply window dressing for the corrupt practice of taking children's cartoons and comic book stories and injecting them with growth hormones, causing them to mutate into hyperthyroid franchise pictures.

Hollywood studios do not make movies any more, they manage intellectual properties. There was a time when they did make movies. However, they gave up that difficult but noble endeavor, which can result in failure as well as success, a long time ago, having affixed themselves to a model that guarantees their films make money. Throw enough money, enough stars and enough special effects at the screen and no matter what else the movie is, no matter how obvious, how stupid or how boring, people will still buy tickets and even cue around the block to have their intelligences insulted, time and time and time again. Maybe I was naïve to think that there was ever anything more to it, but the fact that Hollywood studios are content to serve up the same conformist, market-tested drivel time after time because that is what makes money, seems so transparent now, it cannot help but diminish the magic just a little bit. All too often the movie is merely the centrepiece for a globe-spanning, multi-media, multi-platform advertising event, with franchise and merchandising tie-ins for everything from hamburgers to clothing lines, lunch boxes, action figures, soundtrack albums, credit cards, boats, planes, trains and small Latin American countries.

The Avengers, which brings together characters from four of Marvel Studios (now owned by The Walt Disney Company) most successful franchises – Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk and Thor – for what promises to be the biggest superhero movie to date, is already generating the kind of fervour among the online geek community, which I occasionally frequent, more normally associated with a religious cult.

I cannot, will not and am not judging the film on the strength of the trailer alone, it is just that right now what I associate with this particular property has everything to do with strategic co-ordination of triangulated cross-media promotional strategies and nothing to do with the movie itself. From the scant footage shown, it is clear that Joss Whedon is a better writer than he is a director; Robert Downey Jnr is given all of the best lines (and delivers them with sarcastic aplomb), as one might expect; Chris Evan's pure hearted Cap is almost certainly the real hero of the piece and, my guess is, will finish the film by making some kind of honourable self-sacrifice to save the world. The dialogue is nicely spiky and irreverent, but the sets and the costumes are too clean and the shot compositions pure television. Now, we will have to wait and see. Can The Avengers restore my faith in Hollywood superhero films? - Trailer Trash - Keyword description

Sunday, October 09, 2011

A Long Shot

Released in 1973, The Day of the Jackal, is an Anglo-French co-production starring Edward Fox as an unnamed killer who attempts to assassinate former French President Charles de Gaulle. The film tapped into a rich seam of political discontentment and public mistrust of government institutions at the time, as depicted in films like The Conversation (1973), All the President's Men (1976) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Unlike those films however, The Day of the Jackal is a traditional thriller wherein order is threatened but ultimately justice is seen to be done. Not to say that there are not a lot of entertaining ambiguities along the way

The film begins thusly: "August 1962 was a stormy time for France", intones a dispassionate commentator in perfect 'BBC English'. "Many people felt that President Charles de Gaulle had betrayed the country by giving independence to Algeria. Extremists, mostly from the Army, swore to kill him in revenge. They banded together in an underground movement, and called themselves the OAS." What follows is a faithful recreation of an attempted assassination attempt planned by Col. Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry. This is the historical basis for what follows, which is pure fiction.

The Jackal himself is an implacable but dapper professional who wanders around the great cities of Europe - Rome, Paris, London, Vienna - wearing a cravat and blending into the background regardless of the scenery. Whether he is negotiating in seedy back alleys in Genoa, buying supplies at a bustling marketplace in Rome, or seducing a wealthy heiress in a high-priced hotel just outside of Paris, he is in total control. Meticulous planning and professionalism are his defining characteristics, nothing is left to chance. But like any respectable Englishman, if there is one thing the Jackal cannot abide it is bad manners. Rudeness, lack of grace, or the failure to heed the demands of an intricate protocol (as William Gibson might say) are sufficient grounds for a stern look from most English gentleman. The Jackal, a trained killer, just takes that same principle a few steps further.

The meticulous planning in the first third of the film is interesting but it is when the brilliant detective deputy commissioner Claude Lebel (played by Michel Lonsdale - one of the few Frenchman in the film) is hired by the French Minister of the Interior to track and catch the killer that the film kicks into high gear. The cat and mouse game between the Jackal and Lebel is an exquisite piece of narrative clockwork, the Jackal like a predator stalking his prey as Lebel narrows his search in ever decreasing circles.

For a film featuring spies, spying, assassination plots, terrorists, torture, several murders and a revenue of police, intelligence agents and border guards, probably the most violent scene in the the film is the one that features an exploding watermelon. Anyone who has seen the Zapruda film will undoubtedly be reminded of the devastating impact of the bullet that killed 35th President of the United States John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. And even though we know that French President Charles de Gaulle survived all of the numerous attempts on his life, the film certainly makes you wonder - just maybe the Jackal, as written by Frederick Forsyth, could have got away with it.

The post is part of the 'British Picture' - A Long Shot - Keyword description

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Remarkable Life and Career of Steve Jobs

This morning I woke to the news that Steve Jobs had died. Such an important figure in the history of computing and entertainment, his story is rich in twists and turns, ups and downs, business success and human drama. Jobs was indeed a pioneer worthy of the attention he is now receiving.

The pioneer years

Steve Jobs was one of the truly great business leaders of this or any other era. Co-founding Apple Computer Inc. in 1976 with engineering buddy Steve Wozniak, 'the two Steve's' were central figures in the home computer revolution (truly a revolution) that started in the 1980s and accelerated throughout the 1990s. The Apple II, designed, developed and largely programmed by Wozniak (there is something very romantic in my mind about the idea of one man in a garage literally building a new computer from scratch) was the first to introduce the WIMP (windows, icon menu, pointing device) style of GUI (graphical user interface) to the mass consumer market. In 1999, British writer and director Martyn Burke made a terrific American made-for-TV movie about the one time rivalry between Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Jobs of Apple, as both companies fought to capitalise on the technology developed at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Centre). My thoughts on Pirates of Silicon Valley can be found here.

After the launch of the Apple II there was the Lisa and, in 1984, the iconic Macintosh, which promised to show why '1984 will not be like 1984'. In an audacious gamble, Jobs hired Ridley Scott to direct what was then the most expensive television advert ever made and then, undeterred by the conservative Apple board which refused to finance screening the ad, Jobs proceeded to front half the cash (the other half came from his friend and partner Steve Wozniak) to buy a $400,000 half time slot at the 1984 Super Bowl. The advert went on to the garner countless awards and set the groundwork for Apple's Creative Outsider brand image.

An unexpected detour

Then the Steve Jobs story took an odd turn. First, Wozniak quit Apple because he disapproved of how Jobs was managing the company, encouraging rivalries to develop between teams of engineers working on different products. Then, John Sculley, whom Jobs had hired from Pepsi just two years earlier (Jobs famously asked Sculley, 'do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?') had Jobs fired from the company he had himself co-founded just nine years earlier. Jobs had just turned 30.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, 'There are no second acts in American lives'. Far from becoming despondent however, in 1985, Jobs, ever the optimist, established NeXT Computer, which, although it was never very successful from a commercial perspective, is widely regarded as having layed the groundwork for a wide range of subsequent innovations in the home computer market. Also, Tim Berners-Lee was working on a NeXT computer at CERN when he designed and developed the first programs for what would become the World Wide Web.

Arguably the best investment of Steve Job's illustrious career was the $10 million he paid for the Graphics Group (George Lucas needed the money to finance his divorce), which was the computer animation division of Lucasfilm that had worked on various early CGI effects shots in collaboration with Industrial Light & Magic – the Genesis effect in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan and the stained glass knight effect in Young Sherlock Holmes. Later renamed Pixar, in 1995, the studio made the first ever fully CGI animation film, a visionary act that requiring the sort of daring it is hard to imagine in a post-Toy Story world. Much like Snow White before it, the first ever fully hand drawn animation motion picture, which Walt Diseny produced in spite dire warnings from all concerned, Toy Story was a masterpiece and Steve Jobs faith in John Lasseter and his fantastic creative team venerated. Jobs always had impeccable taste.

Today Pixar is arguably the most successful movie studio in the world, with no 'flops' and a long string of unqualified hits – Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life, The Incredibles, Wall-E and Up, to name just a few. In 2006, Disney bought Pixar, making Jobs the largest single individual shareholder in the The Walt Disney Company, with more stock than even Roy Disney.

The success years

In between times, without its visionary founder and principal creative driving force, Apple struggled throughout the 1990s and in 1997, when Jobs returned to his spiritual home, was actually on the verge of bankruptcy.

With Jobs back on board, the company was transformed. Job empowered creative individuals such as the brilliant British designer Jonathan Ives to create attractive and appealing consumer products, starting with the iMac in 1997. The first all-in-one PC, the computer hardware was all housed inside a monitor which was itself designed with a colourful translucent shell first issued in Bondi blue. The iMac was the first in a long line of market defining, sometimes re-defining products, launched during Jobs' second era with the company.

In 2001, Apple created the MP3 as we know it today. With around 200 times more storage than its nearest competitor at the time and the iTunes library at its centre, the iPod was not the first instance of Apple releasing a product that was well ahead of the competition. But it was Jobs ability to package and explain what was then quite a complicated concept, without condescending, that made the difference. What followed in 2007, however, was nothing short of another revolution.

The show (because that is what it was) began with a landmark announcement in Apple's corporate history, one that it is all too easy to gloss over, but one which, in retrospect, was truly a declarative statement of intentions. Apple Computer Inc. was to change its name to the more pithy and statuesque moniker of Apple Inc. This was a brand coming of age, but only a teaser for the main event.

The Apple keynote delivered by Steve Jobs in 2007 was a masterclass in presentation and the power of misdirection in storytelling, Jobs establishing and subverting expectations time and time again, leading his audience on a merry dance. Product launches are never that much fun, but it was part of Steve Job's genius (a word I do not use lightly). At first, he declared that Apple would be launching three revolutionary new products – an MP3 player, a phone and a computer. Then he said it again: an MP3 player, a phone and a computer – it sounds silly but the audience actually gasped as they watched all three merge into a single black rectangle. 'We call it iPhone'. Welcome to the world of the modern smartphone. And in 2010, Apple and Jobs did it again with the iPad, his unerring gift for giving people products that they can be passionate about, and presenting those products in such as way that they become must have items. Few technology events can have ever garnered as much mainstream media attention as the Apple iPad launch.


Apple and Steve Jobs were selling a dream, of course, but such was Jobs' personal charisma, his wit and his charm, his belief was infectious; people wanted to share in it. With Steve Jobs at the helm, there is little wonder why Apple came to engender such cult-like devotion from its fans. Jobs was unlike any other big business leader or corporate CEO, wearing trademark black polo-neck and jeans, he was Steve; a master communicator and compelling storyteller. Despite all of the success and the accoutrements of wealth and power, there was something very human about Steve Jobs - and I don't think it was too big a secret why that positive energy comes across so clearly even in what might have otherwise been quite dull corporate presentations. Steve Jobs made his living doing what he loved, he believed in the products developed by his companies and he was genuinely enthusiastic and positive about the creative possibilities and avenues for individual expression and art enabled by computer technology. He had a dream and he fought to live that dream. One of a kind. Possessed of a special kind of magic. Edison. Ford. Jobs. RIP - The Remarkable Life and Career of Steve Jobs - Keyword description

Monday, October 03, 2011


The Debt
is a split-narrative movie. In the first, set in 1965 East Berlin, three Mossad agents - Rachel, David and Stefan - are sent behind the Iron Curtain in order to capture a Nazi war criminal so that he can face trial in Israel. In the second, set in 1997 Tel Aviv, Rachel is the subject of a book written by her daughter all about her heroic exploits 30 years before; David is a psychologically troubled loner; and Stefan is a high-ranking official in the Israeli government. To say much more would be to do the film a disservice. This is a thriller after all and the twists and turns of the plot, of which I knew nothing before I entered the theater, are worth preserving.

For my money, this is everything that Tomas Alfredson's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy promised to be but wasn't. An espionage thriller with a period Cold War setting; the stakes are high and the emotional conflicts instantly relatable. The three comparative naifs that we are introduced to in 1960s Berlin are convincing spies - physically strong, bright, assured and effortlessly confident speaking both German and English - but all three also have believable motivations for being involved in the murky world of espionage in the first place. As guardians of the Israeli state, their goal is to bring a known criminal to justice, though, of course, this being a Cold War spy thriller, things quickly get much more complicated.

I am reluctant to say more lest I divulge anything that might spoil the film. Just to say, the script is wittily written, John Madden, of Shakespeare in Love fame, is a very competent director (here I mean that as the highest possible compliment - telling the story expertly while not drawing any undue attention to his role behind the camera), and among a cast who deliver uniformly excellent performances, Jessica Chastain is the standout - brave, alluring, vulnerable, sensitive, sad and cast in steel.

If it is playing in a cinema near you, seek this out ahead ahead of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. A small film that packs an unexpected punch.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

I am the Passenger

Declaration of interests: I do not drive, I frequently use public transport and I especially like trains.

Drive launches off the starting grid like a Formula One racing car... No... Drive puts its foot on the accelerator and doesn't let up... No, not that either...

Starting my review of a film called Drive with a half-baked car metaphor would be cheap and obvious, and I am not going to be tempted into it... Ironic commentary about whether or not I should start my review like that, on the other hand, is self-reverential and cool...

Levity aside, the first ten minutes of Drive are brilliant. A man known only as Driver looks out at a neon-lit cityscape while, in voice over, he sets out his terms and conditions. He speaks in a calm, authoritative but surprisingly high pitched monotone: "If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I am yours no matter what. One minute either side of that and I'm gone. I don't sit in while you're running it down; I don't carry a gun... I drive. You won't be able to contact me on this number again." Then, the man, until now only identifiable by the golden scorpion sewed into the back of his white leather jacket, steps away from the window, throws a mobile phone down onto the motel bed, picks up a heavy sports bag and leaves.

Had the film fulfilled on the deadpan promise of that opening and the getaway that follows I would now be raving about a new classic. Unfortunately, it does not. What starts out as pulp noir, morphs into romantic fairy tale, gritty crime pic and, finally, ultra-violent avenging angel fantasy - and all sense of verisimiltude gos out the window.

What the film lacks is any sense of character. One look at the similarly stylish, John Huston crime film, The Big Sleep, and the difference is obvious. Humphrey Bogart and Laren Bacall did not play well-rounded characters one might recognise from everyday life; far from it, they were larger than life and rejoiced in their pulpy origins. Character does not have to mean Ken Loach or Mike Leigh; Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane are good enough. Drive, however, seems confused by that distinction. There are too many boring scenes. I suppose that when Driver carries his love interest's groceries into her apartment, bests her six year old son at a staring contest and then lingers to enjoy a glass of water, there is supposed to be some sort of frison or undercurrent. But the scene is entirely domestic and doesn't have the zing or sparkle to elevate it above soap opera. Take this exchange:

Driver to Irene, 'Thanks for the glass of water'.
Irene to her son, 'Say bye'.
Son to Driver, 'Bye'.
Driver leaves.

Now compare that to this exchange in The Big Sleep:

Vivian, 'So you do get up, I was beginning to think you worked in bed like Marcel Proust.'
Marlowe, 'Who's he?'
Vivian, 'You wouldn't know him, a French writer.'
Marlowe, 'Come into my boudoir'.

Now I know that Driver is not supposed to be a wise-cracking private dick but the point still stands. Also, I know it may only be an aesthetic difference, but I don't really like the vogue for middle aged gansters who wear bad tracksuits; I much prefer the well-tailored low-lives we used to get in films like The Godfather, which at least maintained the pretence that there was more going on in their lives than merely violence. But therein lies the film's biggest probelm; everything from the plot (part The Driver, part Taxi Driver) to the look and style of the gangsters (The Sopranos) to the look and style of the violence (Gasper Noe) seems to be taken from somewhere else. What results is a film that is so derivative, so self-concious, so pleased with its own sense of self-awareness, it is perilously close to disappearing up its own exhaust - I am the Passenger - Keyword description